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Sensemaker: Pfizer’s pandemic

Sensemaker: Pfizer’s pandemic

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Enstroga, Igloo Energy and Symbio Energy, which supply 233,000 customers in the UK with gas and electricity, went bust as a result of the spike in wholesale gas prices.
  • North Korea said it successfully tested a hypersonic missile called Hwasong-8, joining a small pool of countries, including the US and Russia, that are developing the faster and more agile type of rocket.
  • A cassette recording that features a previously unreleased song played by John Lennon sold for $58,300 at an auction in Copenhagen.

Pfizer’s pandemic

It’s old news that the governments of rich countries have failed the developing world in giving access to vaccines. 

Unlike other failures, this one is not an orphan. The new news is how much vaccine manufacturers have been complicit in – or even authored – strategies that have favoured the same countries, where wealthy people live and profits reside. And one company in particular: Pfizer.

Pfizer has been responsible for one in four of the 6.2 billion doses of vaccine delivered worldwide. But of the doses sent to Covax – the organisation set up to supply vaccines to the poorest countries in the world – only one in seven.

All the vaccine manufacturers have made choices. AstraZeneca chose to sell their vaccine at cost price, at least in this first phase of the pandemic. Pfizer – not alone among pharmaceutical companies – chose to sell at a profit. It is on course to make a greater profit than any of its peers. The question is how it has managed that. 

Increasingly, at Covax, in the World Health Organization, in the African Union, in every part of the vaccine forest, a belief has taken root that Pfizer’s determined focus on the developed world, where it can sell its vaccine at full price, is far from accidental. 

Over recent weeks at Tortoise we have spoken to people at the heart of the global vaccination effort, and found:

  • There is a widespread belief – it would be fair to say almost universal among people in that global vaccine effort – that Pfizer has deliberately stalled its negotiations with Covax, Unicef and others to maximise full-price sales to rich countries. A leading figure in the vaccine world described Pfizer to Tortoise as “an extreme form of rapacious capitalism”.
  • Inside AstraZeneca (AZ), a series of public statements made by a Pfizer board member, Dr Scott Gottlieb, were interpreted as attempts to undermine AZ’s vaccine. The company’s frustration boiled over after Dr Gottlieb appeared on CBS television in February 2021 and made claims about its vaccine that AZ regarded as “misleading, speculative and derogatory”. In a letter sent to Pfizer’s legal counsel, AZ accused Scott Gottlieb of causing “confusion and misimpressions that pose a serious public health threat around the world”, and made clear to Pfizer that it held the company responsible. Senior figures associated with the AZ vaccine concluded that Pfizer’s motivation was commercial, driven by a desire to reduce sales of its rivals’ products.
  • Pfizer is expected to generate more than $60 billion over the course of 2021 and 2022 from sales of its vaccine. For context, its total revenues last year were around $50 billion. Pfizer’s income from its vaccine alone this year will be greater than AZ’s entire sales. 

Pfizer has denied any suggestion that it has set about undermining its rivals’ products or dragged its heels with Covax to favour wealthier customers. 

Trying to understand the finances of vaccines and vaccine manufacturers throws up a separate issue: in the UK the price the government pays for vaccines is a commercial secret. The best estimate seems to be that we might be paying up to $26 a dose for Pfizer, maybe somewhere in the region of $18 for Moderna, and as little as $5 for AZ. But take those figures with a pinch of salt – they’re educated guesses at best.

It’s easy to see why masking the price is good policy for the makers of the vaccine but more difficult to understand why it’s in the public interest. We’re well used in this country to calculate the trade-offs between the cost of a medicine and its effectiveness; we set up an entire organisation, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, more than 20 years ago to do just that. Our next line of enquiry at Tortoise will be to see if we can get a rate-card for all those jabs.

Listen to Pfizer’s War, this week’s Slow Newscast.

Read Pfizer’s full statement to Tortoise.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Gang wars
It took 400 police officers to regain control of Ecuador’s Litoral penitentiary, which houses inmates from rival drug gangs. But not before 80 people were injured and 116 killed, five of whom were beheaded. Some prisoners threw grenades. The fight began with a dispute between Los Lobos (the Wolves) and Los Choneros (people from Chonero Canton). Colonel Mario Pazmiño, the former director of Ecuador’s military intelligence, told AP the violence shows how “transnational organized crime has permeated the structure” of Ecuador’s prisons, adding that Mexico’s Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels operate through Ecuadorian gangs. The country’s president said he would accelerate a $24 million program to improve Ecuador’s prisons. It’s another cost of the global illicit drug trade borne by those least able to pay.

New things technology, science, engineering

Target Amazon
California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, signed a bill prohibiting the sacking of warehouse workers for failing to meet quotas that don’t allow for rest breaks and the use of lavatories, or that prevent compliance with occupational health and safety laws. The new law will come into force in January 2022. Although it applies to all companies, its target is clear. Amazon, which has come under fire for the methods it uses to monitor, reward, and discipline warehouse workers, has about 150,000 employees in California. How might Amazon react? It can move its operations elsewhere.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Antidepressants work
​​At last. A piece of research, conducted over many years, that compares people taking antidepressants with those who stop taking them. It found that long-term users are less likely to suffer a relapse. The widespread use of antidepressants has become a cause for concern. In England, prescriptions of antidepressants increased by around 6 per cent in 2020. Between October and December 2020, more than 20 million antidepressants were prescribed. Glyn Lewis, lead author and head of psychiatry at University College London, told the Times the study “supports the idea that the way depressants are being used at the moment is appropriate and is overall benefiting patients”. The next question is why so many people need them.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Cut methane
Methane is around 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, but gets much less air time in climate talks. Methane emissions may, however, be easier to cut. A lot of them come from leaks at oil and gas drilling operations, shale gas wells, gas pipelines, and other fossil fuel infrastructure. The Energy Transitions Commission, a think tank, believes cutting global methane emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 is achievable. That would compensate for much of the shortfall in CO2 emissions reductions plans by national governments. For more on methane you can revisit our Net Zero Sensemaker methane special.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Furlough over
The British government’s furlough scheme ends today. It was introduced in March 2020 to help pay the wages of almost 12 million workers after Covid pandemic restrictions forced entire sectors of the economy to shut. It cost £70 billion: about one-fifth of the money the government has spent on its pandemic response. The number of people on furlough fell over this year as restrictions eased but, as of July, there were still 1.6 million workers on furlough. The Bank of England expects there will now be a small rise in unemployment, concentrated in particular sectors. The pandemic shock, unlike typical recessions, hit particular sectors – travel, hospitality, transport – much harder than others. If the government can no longer afford a total-economy furlough scheme, it should consider a sector-specific one.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Ceri Thomas

Paul Caruana Galizia

Produced by Phoebe Davis and edited by Xavier Greenwood. 

Photographs Getty Images, Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, Gerardo Menoscal/Agencia Press South/Getty Images